High school students enter my school everyday with their own individual sets of “stuff.” It would be naive to demand or command that they adhere to some delusional set of unreal expectations that implies that perfection is the only allowable outcome–constant, never wavering hard work, attentiveness, dedication, positivity, even-keel temperament, and a zeal for the subject matter. These kids, though, are teenagers and their most important job in the moment really doesn’t have anything to do with getting into college or taking on leadership roles in clubs or pleasing me. Their most important job has everything to do with figuring out who they’re going to be in this world, what kind of person they will become. If I narrow-mindedly assume that my class should always be their first priority, I have lost sight of the fact that these students are living complete and complex lives. If I can’t extend a little grace toward them, with the understanding that they will have good days and bad because in fact they are human beings, then I’ve missed the point.
In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes these words:
“Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.”
She is writing about empathy’s integral role in kindness. She is writing about the sort of transformative moment that empathy creates as it brings sincerity and weight to common niceties. Nye seems to imply that in order for kindness to live into its potential, for it to truly be meaningful, we must see ourselves in the situations of others. We must recognize the common ground of humanity in everyone we encounter. We must see our sameness in order to be able to nurture each other through our differences. We must understand that someone else’s misfortune could be our own.
In that awareness, we not only become truly kind, but we also transform ourselves into better human beings. We are able to creep out of our shell of selfishness in search of ways to help those in need around us…even the people we don’t necessarily know because we have paused to imagine life through their eyes. We are able to shift out of our own biases to see the truth of the people around us rather than our assumptions about them…assumptions that imprison and inhibit our true kindness potential.
This is what I attempt to achieve in my classroom. I work really hard to see beyond the moment and to understand what is causing the moment. Is the student tired, overwhelmed, going through a hard time…what is the reason for the behavior? In doing this, I’m working to pause before rushing to judgement. I am working to give them the benefit of the doubt.
I was recently reminded by my friend Sara Ahmed of the benefit of the “soft start” in classrooms. This is a brief period of time at the start of a class where students are actively engaged in an activity that interests them but isn’t necessarily course work. So, this week, I have placed magazines, adult coloring books, books of poetry, QR codes for a Padlet full of links to interesting articles, writing prompts and more on the tables of my classroom. The kids come in, sit down anywhere they are comfortable and work on whichever activity they feel best suits them that day. Part of why I offered this, outside of the fact that it is just good practice, I was sort of struck by the realization that our kids go from class to class with sometimes stark contrast in subject matter and we expect them to immediately switch gears without much pause. The soft start allows kids to decompress a bit and to transition so that when it comes time to work on coursework, they are better prepared and mentally ready to focus. My students this week have said that at first they thought the “soft start” was silly and a little fluffy. After a couple of days though they realized that it was really helping them–they felt like they were thinking better in class because they had that moment to quiet themselves and find their focus. I loved this!! However, if I stood harshly by the idea of working bell to bell, if I ignored the needs of my students, we would have missed out on this transformative.
It was a kindness. I saw myself in the way we ask them to “do school” and understood that there could be a better way. I recognize that there are people out there who think that because of my level of empathy, I am too soft on my kids. There are people who feel like I am not preparing them for the real world. On the contrary, I feel like I am preparing them to become leaders in the world I want to live in. A world filled with sincere kindnesses. An empathic world.